When the pair took gold in the men’s synchronized 10m platform in July, it was the first Olympic medal of Lee’s young career and the third for Daley, who also went on to win a bronze in the 10m platform in Tokyo.
For Lee, a whirlwind of celebrations and media opportunities — as well as a holiday — followed; the thrill of winning Olympic gold hasn’t faded just yet, but the return of his unforgiving training routine is bringing him back down to earth with a sizable splash.
“I am still finding it very weird to be back at training. I’m like: ‘Do I really want to be here? This is really hard,'” says Lee.
“Preseason isn’t easy in any sport. It’s where you get back into fitness. It’s gruesome, but I just know I need to get through this bit, get back in shape, then I’ll feel good and then I can set goals. So I’m not rushing to any conclusions.”
Added to the challenge of preseason is that Lee is doing it all without Daley by his side.
The British pair had trained and competed together for three years leading up to the Olympics, forming an unbeaten partnership throughout 2021.
But it’s unclear whether the duo will continue to compete together, with Lee saying he doesn’t want to “pester” the 27-year-old Daley to make a decision while he’s in North America with his husband, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.
“I loved training alongside Tom for the past three years and it feels really flat without him,” Lee adds.
“We get along so well, and we have literally trained together for the past three years. Everything we do, we do it together. Because obviously with synchro, we’re trying to build that bond where we don’t have to think about being in sync, it’s all very telepathic.”
Guarding the gold medal
In between training, house-sitting duties and finding a new place to rent, Lee adds that he’s still on “cloud nine” from the Tokyo Olympics — his debut Games.
And while most of his medals are stored in a cabinet at his parents’ home, the Olympic gold rarely leaves his side.
“I feel like it just needs to be wherever I am,” says Lee. “I let people touch it, I let people wear it, I let people hold the weight, but I’ve always got a good grip on the ribbon itself because if they drop it, then I’ll catch it. So it’s yet to get a dent on it.
“I was told by Tom — because obviously he’s got many medals and many medals of his have been dropped — and he says that every chip tells a story, so not to look at it in a negative way, more a positive, cool way.”
‘I can’t believe I did that’
In order to win gold in the men’s synchronized 10m platform, Lee had to hold his nerve as the final went down to the wire.
Daley and Lee led the Chinese pair of Cao Yuan and Chen Aisen by less than two points ahead of the last round. When crunch time arrived, they claimed the gold with a flawless, four-and-a-half somersault dive.
It was Britain’s first ever gold medal in the event and ended China’s winning run that stretched back to 2000.
“It’s interesting to look back on it,” says Lee. “Every so often, I come across a video I’ve been tagged in on Instagram or whatever, and it’s my dive or my reaction with Tom. And I can’t believe I actually did that.
“I’ve had some crap moments in the sport where I’ve just bottled it — last dive, I’ve just not done what I’ve had to do and rolled the dive on my back, made a big splash, and then didn’t get good points and then not got on the podium.
“But just to know that I actually did it when it actually counted on the biggest stage in the world in sport, me and Tom … it was obviously the best moment of my life.”
Which begs the question: how did he manage to produce one of the best dives of his career when it mattered most?
“One thing I’ve changed — and I think the pandemic actually helped — was mentality, my mental strength,” says Lee.
“My physical strength has always been there; I’ve been able to do the dives. I know I can do them well because I do them in training. But in the competition, it’s all mental. You’ve got to have no doubt in your mind, you can’t think ahead of your dive.”
That helped to take care of his own performance, and as for his partner, Lee says he never had any doubts that Daley — one of the faces of the British Olympic movement for the past 13 years having made his debut aged 14 — would deliver.
“He’s the only synchro partner I’ve ever had where it’s just been like: I know he’s fine,” says Lee.
“I know I can count on him because he is that good … Trying to stay in the moment, think about what I’m doing right now, right then, simplifying everything in my mind — that’s the main thing that actually improved in my diving career. And that helped me reach Tom Daley’s level and get the gold medal with him.”
But slowly, Lee’s focus will turn to setting goals for next year — notably at the Commonwealth Games on home soil in Birmingham and the world championships in Fukuoka, Japan.
Although the Olympic spotlight has dimmed, the preparation and routine are as intense as ever.